Edinburgh ABC keeps visually impaired Murray riding

boy and man sitting on tandem in residential street
Murray and dad Stewart prepare for another adventure on their loaned tandem
When Murray McConnell began to experience vision loss, the 11-year-old was devastated by the prospect of giving up cycling at a time when his friends were riding more than ever. But since being loaned a tandem by Edinburgh ABC, he has forged a special bond with his dad.

Mum Wendy captured the change she saw in her son, Murray: “I haven’t seen a smile on the boy’s face in such a while, I could cry".

The McConnell family from Longniddry, East Lothian, has always been active. Father Stewart runs marathons and Murray enjoys judo and running as well as cycling with his friends.

Things changed for Murray around a year ago when he began to lose some vision due to an undiagnosed condition, and was advised to stop cycling. The timing was especially unfortunate as it happened in the week that his school was running Bikeability training. As well as missing out on riding to school with his friends, Murray knew he would be unable to take part the following year, too.

When the coronavirus lockdown began, Murray was required to shield due to a health condition associated with his vision loss. With no school, and with reading becoming more difficult, his options for activities were greatly limited. Eventually his consultant at Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh insisted that he started going outside for exercise.

After some research, Wendy discovered the Vie Velo tandeming club which pairs sighted and visually impaired riders. They recommended the Edinburgh All-ability Bike Centre, run by Cycling UK with funding from The RS MacDonald Charitable Trust. During lockdown, the ABC has been unable to operate under the social distancing regulations, so its fleet of adaptive bikes and trikes have been offered on loan to individuals and families in the area.

Wendy was delighted to be offered such a perfect bike: “We thought we would get a rusty old tandem but instead we got this amazing bike, the Circe Helios".

Murray and Stewart took to life on a tandem straight away. The very next day saw them cover the eight miles to Haddington, with a 20-mile trip the following day. They quickly built up speed to achieve an impressive 15 miles in 50 minutes. This presented a challenge for Wendy, who sometimes joins them so they can ride together as a family, but with the combined power of father and son, keeping up with them is no easy feat. Despite this, it’s obvious Wendy values the experience: “We have always done things together as a family.”

To see him struggle for the last year and half, this is a real glimpse of positivity

Wendy McConnell, Murray's mum

The McConnells have enjoyed exploring local routes including: the Old Haddington railway, the coastal road to North Berwick and the minor roads around their village. 

Murray is keen to use the tandem for training to improve his fitness in general, and insisted on riding to a recent judo session on the beach, although his mum suspects that had more to do with his desire to show off the bike. She said: “Everyone who comes to the house is taken into the garage to see the tandem as he loves to show it off.” Murray also loves to show off the professional-style cycling jacket bought as a motivational gift by his cousin.

In a matter of weeks, Wendy has noticed a difference in her son. She said: “To see him struggle for the last year and half, this is a real glimpse of positivity. He said to me: ‘Mum, this just feels so normal’ as that is what he wants. He wants to be normal, not considered special. He likes the fact that the bike attracts positive attention, but people are looking at the really cool tandem, they’re not looking at him.”

One unexpected benefit of the tandem loan is the strengthened bond between father and son. With Murray insisting that the tandem is only for boys and that mum is not allowed to use it, he has built a partnership with Stewart. Communication between riders is vital on a tandem, so Stewart gives instructions to guide Murray while they are riding. This partnership style has also benefited the pair when they run together, as Stewart is able to guide his son in the same way.

When the time comes to return the loan tandem to the ABC, the family hope to continue their adventures. They plan to buy their own tandem and undertake a charity ride from Barra to Lewis in the Outer Hebrides to thank the various organisations who have helped Murray and his family.